PARIS – Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France Sunday in a watershed victory that hands the political newcomer a strong mandate to overhaul France's economy and stem a tide of nationalism sweeping the European Union.
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Some 64.6% of voters cast ballots for Mr. Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker who has vowed to undertake contentious labor reforms in France as part of a push for greater economic convergence among the EU's fractious member states, according to preliminary results.
Marine Le Pen, who ran on a plan to pull the country out of the euro and close its borders to migrants, took 35.4%. She conceded minutes after early projections were announced.
Mr. Macron will become the youngest president in French history at a time when France and the EU, the 60-year political project it helped found, face major challenges.
Nearly a decade of lost economic growth for many EU countries has fueled the rise of Ms. Le Pen and other nationalists across the Continent, emboldened by the British vote to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
"I know the divisions in our nation, which led some to vote for extremist parties. I respect them," Mr. Macron said in a somber address after the victory. "I will work to recreate the link between Europe and its peoples."
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Still, the scale of Mr. Macron's victory provides a shot in the arm to the pro-EU establishment. He ran as a staunch defender of the bloc, positioning himself as a bulwark against Europe's nationalist wave. The strategy broke with parts of France's political mainstream that had been gravitating toward more populist positions.
The euro rose by around 0.2% to $1.102 against the dollar following the results, taking the common currency to its highest level since the U.S. presidential election in November.
In conceding defeat Sunday, Ms. Le Pen said her far-right National Front party was in need of "deep transformation...to build a new political force."
Ms. Le Pen said the election cemented her status as the leading opposition figure of a new political order centered around "the divide between patriots and globalists."
In the coming weeks, Mr. Macron will face a scramble to build his fledgling political party, En Marche, or "On the Move," into a political force capable of winning a majority in June's legislative elections. En Marche has so far refused to forge alliances with mainstream parties and has only named a handful of candidates it intends to field in the 577 seats up for grabs.
If Mr. Macron fails to secure a majority, he would have to seek ad hoc alliances with opposition parties or could even be forced into a so-called cohabitation -- a form of power-sharing under which a prime minister from the opposition runs the government.
Mr. Macron built a political base around support from urban professionals who embrace his prescription of loosening France's labor code to make it easier to hire and fire workers. Such measures aim to create a workforce that can more easily adapt to disruptions caused by globalization and technological change.
Mr. Macron has said the EU's future depends on whether its shaky architecture can undergo a root-and-branch overhaul to correct stark economic imbalances among wealthier Northern and poorer Southern members and develop a security apparatus able to protect the bloc from terror attacks and control a recent wave of migration.
For that to happen, he says, France needs to set an example among countries that have been slow to embrace economic restructuring by loosening its own rigid labor market to become more competitive with stronger neighbors like Germany.
Those mammoth tasks fall to a relative newcomer to politics. Until now, Mr. Macron has never held elected office. He was trained in elite French academies to become a high-ranking civil servant, but switched to a career in investment banking, joining Rothschild & Cie. at the height of the financial crisis.
On Sunday, supporters of the mainstream parties knocked out in April coalesced behind Mr. Macron to secure his victory. Voters appeared unmoved by the massive leak of emails and documents purportedly from the Macron campaign, which were posted to the internet on Friday evening.
Once in office, however, Mr. Macron faces possible fallout from the data dump, which his campaign said mixed real and phony documents with the aim of "sowing doubt and disinformation." For months, Mr. Macron had said his camp was being targeted by Russian government hackers. The Kremlin denied any involvement.
The early results, based on samples of votes cast at hundreds of polling stations across France, could change as more ballots are counted, but surpassed pollsters' predictions that the pro-EU Mr. Macron would win by 60% to 40% over Ms. Le Pen.
The rise of both Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen stems from a meltdown of the political establishment that has ruled France for decades. No candidate from the country's main conservative or center-left parties survived the first round of voting last month. François Hollande, the incumbent president, didn't run, and the candidate of his party captured just 6.4% of the first-round vote.
Mr. Hollande tapped Mr. Macron as a top aide in 2012 and later promoted him to economy minister. Those posts have given him insight into policy-making but have provided scant experience on the sort of parliamentary coalition-building needed to pass difficult legislation -- of the type that will be needed to move ahead with his agenda.
The projections Sunday indicate Ms. Le Pen still managed to pick up millions of supporters who backed mainstream candidates in the first round. That breaks with the pattern in past elections, when big majorities overwhelmingly rallied against the National Front, tainted by the xenophobia of Ms. Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has faced criticism for anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The Sunday projections show Ms. Le Pen nearly doubled the 17.8% of the vote her father won in 2002, the only previous occasion a National Front candidate reached the final round of a French presidential election.
Ms. Le Pen's success in broadening the National Front's base is a measure of how voters in France's rural and declining industrial areas have become skeptical of a project that, only a decade ago, was strongly embraced as a recipe for ending centuries of conflict in Europe.
The EU's goal of binding its member countries in an "ever closer" union has also placed many of its weaker economies in a straitjacket. The sovereign-debt crisis that swept the bloc's southern economies -- from Greece and Italy to Spain and Portugal -- has left the Continent struggling to kick-start growth.
In France, unemployment remains high as many companies have held back investment, hemmed in by rigid labor rules that make hiring and firing costly. Some manufacturers have left the country's industrial North in favor of cheaper labor in Eastern Europe.
Write to William Horobin at William.Horobin@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 07, 2017 18:07 ET (22:07 GMT)